This is a tale of two Wilmingtons.
For two decades we lived in the city of Wilmington – 15 of those years in Wawaset Park. Two miles from downtown, the neighborhood is a charming oasis with a rich mix of architectural styles. Grand canopies of October Glory and Red Sunset sugar maples overhang the narrow streets. Sidewalks come alive with walkers and their potpourri of canines. After a snowfall, the vintage streetlamp glow is reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting.
In August my wife, Jane, and I packed up the house and with our Toller retriever, Smarty, and headed down I-95, traveling 705 miles south. Zipping past the ubiquitous Pedro billboards (South of the Border); crossing over the Pee Dee Rivers; we finally rolled through Savannah, Georgia – one of America’s favorite destinations.
A couple of causeways later we dropped anchor on Wilmington Island. Jane’s family in Savannah has roots here dating back to the 1850s. Go to the evocative Bonaventure Cemetery, the headstones will confirm it. Over the past two decades, we often visited Savannah and Tybee Island. It became, as they say, our home away from home.
We left behind a large contingent of friends, family and memories. And the many opportunities that my writing assignments afforded us, such as visits to enchanting shows at the Delaware Theater Company and sensational musical performances at the iconic Grand Opera House.
We regularly ventured into the Brandywine Valley, the pastoral paradise home to boutique wineries, steeplechase races and such cultural gems as the glorious flower-power of Longwood Gardens and the Wyeth-inspired Brandywine River Museum.
Toss in delightful meals at LaFia and Domaine Hudson, meeting pals at Columbus Inn for drinks, dinners and good cheer or teaming up with a cast of characters at Buckleys Tavern — adventures abounded.
But, hello Wilmington Island! In this laid-back barrier island community of 15,000, twisty tidal creeks meander through the terrain cushioned by extensive salt marshes that drain and flood twice each day. It’s a slice of the low country that stretches from roughly from Charleston to Savannah.
Our island’s namesake, the Wilmington River, flows south and west. Drive 20 miles to the southeast and you pull into quirky Tybee Island. On the three-mile-long island, flip-flops and shorts are common attire at weddings and Sunday mass. Each May, the Beach Bum Parade features float-riders — wielding water hoses, super-soakers and even pressure washers — soaking spectators along Butler Avenue. A quintessential beach town diner, the Breakfast Club, serves up memorable morning cuisine.
It is a 15-minute ride into Savannah, celebrated for its exquisite beauty of magnificent oaks draped in Spanish moss, 22 lush town squares, and architectural treasures. It’s a stunning backdrop for an innovative restaurant scene, museums, art galleries, theaters, festivals, trendy boutiques and microbreweries. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) has been front and center in the rejuvenation of downtown. The college, with its 12,000 students from nearly 50 states and more than 100 countries, spawns a great deal of Savannah’s creative spirit.
Arriving on Wilmington Island on an August afternoon, it was a steamy 92 degrees. That takes some getting used to. So do the powerful nightly thunder boomers that sent Smarty into near conniptions. It’s summer in Georgia.
Raised 10 feet off the ground, our house overlooks a spectacular 200-acre stretch of marshland. In the evening we’ve taken to sitting on our lower deck, where we are bewitched by the sights and sounds of “marsh world.” The reigning marsh star is a great blue heron we’ve tagged “Blueboy.” Standing nearly four feet tall, he sports a wingspan of 6 feet. In flight, bathed with sunlight, his iridescent colors shimmer from slate grey and blue to magenta and violet purple. His voice is a deep, harsh croak: frahnk, frahnk frahnk.
Georgia contains one third of the salt marshes (378,000 acres) along the entire Atlantic coast. These vast, coastal “prairies” are blanketed by tall, cane-like grass known as smooth cord-grass that glows from beige to brilliant green near sunset. Live oaks, water oaks, cypress, southern magnolias and cabbage palms form the canopy of the back barrier island forests.
Thanks to Georgia’s semi-tropical climate, scientists say that salt marshes are among the most productive of all ecosystems systems, rivaling tropical rain forests. Transitional zones between the aquatic and terrestrial world, the twice-a-day tides are truly the marsh’s life blood.
The incoming tide (rising 5 to 8 feet in height) nourishes and feeds the marsh grasses, while the outgoing tide transports food and nutrients produced by the marsh to the ocean. It is a nursery for commercial seafood, where decomposing plant material becomes an ideal source of food for blue crabs, shrimp, oysters, clams and all manner of small fish. In addition, the vast expanses of grasses filter out pollutants and act as vital buffer zones, providing protection from the destructive fury of tropical storms and large storm waves.
There is no better way to explore the marsh and its natural beauty and abundance of wildlife than on a kayak expedition. Our marsh is home to egrets, ibis and other herons, as well as a myriad of bird species that wheel in the sky just above: ivory and red-billed woodpeckers, clapper rails and sparrows. Neo-tropical migrants like hummingbirds and painted buntings come here for the summer nesting season. Ducks, goldfinches, and waxwings come for the temperate winter climate and variety of food sources. You can’t help but notice the fiddler crabs that inhabit tidal marshes and burrow into the mud flats.
Back to “Blueboy.” He often buzzes the marsh early in the morning and toward dusk. In the evening he is at times at a bend in the tidal creek about 30 yards away. Standing motionless, he scans the water for prey. When he lifts off, he flies slow and steady, wings arching gracefully down with each beat. His long neck is folded back on his shoulders and his long legs shoot out behind. Blueboy is one majestic sight.
Perched on our marsh dock we sometimes reflect on special times we experienced in Wilmington over the years. In the months ahead some of our best friends from up north will come for a visit. We will be pleased to share with them the wonders of Wilmington Island.
Wilmington Island, Georgia: 32 degrees North LatitudeWilmington, Delaware: 39 degrees North Latitude
Terry Conway is a Delaware Arts and Culture writer. You can view more of his work: www.terryconway.net.